Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez in Delano Manongs.
Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez in Delano Manongs.

Day by day, people go about their lives, often unaware of who and what came before them. The stories of previous generations, and the contributions they’ve made, have shaped our present day in ways we are often unaware of. Delano Manongs, a half-hour documentary by Marissa Aroy that covers the Delano Grape Strike of 1965, aims to rectify this. By the time it’s over, it succeeds in bringing to light the formation of a historical movement, and putting an unforgettable Filipino face on the plight of the workers.

Delano Manongs starts out fairly simple: soft, old-timey piano music plays as old footage and photographs grace the screen with images of Filipino men working the fields. A voiceover explains what a “manong” is to the uninitiated: It’s a Filipino term for a man, distinct because of his age. The men of Delano, California, like all the other early Filipino immigrants, came over to the United States in the 1920’s and ’30s in search of opportunity. They were perpetual bachelors, as the women stayed in the Philippines, and interracial marriage was banned. But they loved to dress up and visit the dance halls, and then go back the next day to their life as migrant farm workers. To the film’s credit, the manongs are easy to empathize with—their history is told with delicacy. They truly come across as real people.

Alas, the film does not waste time in getting to the conflict so explicit in their lives: the inequality and unfair wages forced on them. From their arrival, Filipinos had faced discrimination in the United States, and the disregard for their wellbeing as farm workers was a part of this. So they fought back.

But first, the documentary turns to Larry Itliong. A ferocious, vigilant Filipino worker, he appears in this story like its main character—a figurehead of the farm worker struggle. As the movement erupts, the focus on this man further personalizes the Filipino nature of it all.

Framed with expertise tension, the film covers the day of September 7, 1965, where the workers made the definite decision to strike. And they did. Images of Filipino men holding microphones and shouting for justice flash on screen. But we also see them get beaten down, as policemen come. The growers pull scare tactics, and go so far as to hire Mexican farm workers to pick up the work the Filipinos refused to do. It’s a sad point in this story, and for all the momentum they built up, to see it come crashing down is heartbreaking.

But Itliong had the initiative. Many viewers will find themselves rooting for him by the time he arranges a meeting with Cesar Chavez, advocate of Mexican farm worker rights, and asks for a show of solidarity—a concept very relevant to the API community today. How can different communities of color uplift each other? How can we band together to create greater change? Itliong had the right idea, and Chavez, along with fellow advocate Dolores Huerta, helped to unite their communities together and strike as one.

What came about was the now famous union of the United Farm Workers. The boycott of grapes led to a huge countrywide movement, demanding a contract granting fair rights to the farm workers. In 1970, the contract was granted. All seemed well—but, in its last few minutes, the film deconstructs that notion.

These days, the United Farm Workers movement is mainly recognized as a Mexican one, and Larry Itliong is not a household name despite his work and association with Cesar Chavez. As history would have it, the focus of the movement was not on the Filipinos, which the manongs personally felt was dismissive of their contributions. Even worse, the contract did not favor them, and many lost their jobs and homes. The union was formed, and change had come, but it was not the true outcome they wanted. After all they’ve been through, this portion of the story was particularly disheartening to hear.

But it doesn’t end there. The Filipino community is alive and well, and the documentary notes that we all do our part in sharing the story of the manongs. Recognition breeds respect, which they absolutely deserve. Anyone watching will feel the same. It would have been lovely to view a longer, even more in depth version of Delano Manongs, but in its half hour of coverage is the beautiful story of Filipino perseverance.

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